Sunday, July 29, 2012

Nobody Smokes Games Anymore

The one and only Stilts providing the impetus for this title as I see him for the first time in months and he promptly critiques my cigar choice (a very rare dabbling of mine). It was nice to see him, too.

Just to get it out of the way for family members and concerned friends who were unaware I enjoy cigars, I want to quantify just how rare these occasions are. I've smoked a cigar a total of four times in my life, including the time referenced above. Once casually playing poker, once at Lake George, once on the porch of the 727 to celebrate graduation, and now this Counting Crows show, so we're not talking "I only smoke on the weekends in social settings, so I don't have a problem," we're genuinely talking about special occasions, of which this concert fit the bill. If you don't believe me, you ought to see me hold one; I'm definitely not the smoothest with it.

Anyway, this past weekend sent me on what I would consider my equivalent of a modest vacation as I hopped to the sometimes aptly named "Dirty Jersey" to visit a couple of buds and more importantly, see the Counting Crows. Initially, I had only planned to set up camp at the Madden house, courtesy of Where Did You Get That Corn's own, Dennis Madden, see the show, get some sleep and hit the trail on Monday morning to the island so long they had to name it after an adjective. However, chance would have it that both Denny (different person than Dennis) and I had off on Monday and seeing as how he was a comparatively short 45 minutes away, I decided to visit with him as well.

With construction going on atop the George Washington Bridge, I decided to take my life in my hands take the BQE towards Jersey, and I couldn't be more pleased with the decision. On a clear day the BQE affords some of the most beautiful views I've ever seen. I don't want to get overly sentimental about it, for fear of over paraphrasing Sufjan Stevens, but it really is a kind of like a time capsule of America where you see kind of the past and present of innovation and Americana come together on one really busted up and borderline poorly planned roadway. There's a pretty obvious metaphor there, but me recycling it won't make it original. I recommend the journey to anyone.

That feat of urban scenery aside, the rest of the trip to Dennis' was pretty uneventful. I pulled up and we went about our tradition of PJ Wellahan's (spelling likely wrong) before loitering around his slice of suburbia and hopping the Patco to America's capital of something unpleasant, Camden New Jersey and the conversely beautiful SBC concert venue. Kevin, Brett, and his sister, Caitlin, were in attendance taking in the whole of the xpn fest, which the Crows were closing out that evening. Great to see Kevin again, with a great tan, and of course, Brett, with his less flattering sun-induced freckles. (That'll show him.) Sadly, the confines of their work schedules, combined with a rather lukewarm interest sent the pair to the exits before the Crows took the stage, but nonetheless, great to see them for a spell.

Now to talk about the show. The show, quite simply, was a revelation. In hindsight (all two seconds of it) that word choice might be a little over dramitic (In this blog? Imagine that.) but that's really what it was. It opened my eyes to facets of the Counting Crows' music, and also my biases as a concert goer. In terms of their music, I went in expecting a sound not to be found on their albums. Youtube clips and relatively passionate fandom had led me to expect a sound only kind of based on the groundwork of their studio sessions. A sound that kind of took on the form of almost a spoken word reading where the band provides the background of familiar chords and rhythms so that Adam Duritz can kind of take the sound and song wherever he wants to go. To an extent, I was right, as I've never seen a performer interact with the words he was saying a passionately as Duritz (though, to be fair, most frontmen are also playing a guitar that prevents truly "cutting loose" for lack of a better term), but I was floored by the true musicianship behind him. Don't get me wrong, all you have to do is listen to the albums to know the band is talented, but the amount of solos and improvisation taking place on stage was a real surprise and well...revelation. The best way I can categorize it, is to say remember when I was upset Incubus played rote tracks of their greatest hits? That's what I expected from CC and was totally thrown a curveball of musicianship from vocals to bass. Very pleasantly surprised in that regard.

The Counting Crows also provided something I've never encountered as a concert goer. I realized that I am a concert attendee of extremes. With Wilco being perhaps the only exception, I've either gone to shows where you either sit down and shut up (Bela Fleck, Edgar Meyer, Bon Iver) or you dance all night like an absolute fiend until they kick you out, or Keller Williams plays so long that you concede defeat and hobble out of the venue exhausted (Incubus, Phish, DMB, etc.) Sure, all those high energy groups have cool down numbers here and there to keep the crowd and themselves fresh (except Oasis, I recall that being an hour and a half of face melting with no training wheels for those ill prepared), but largely the band comes out, jazzes you up, pumps the breaks a few times to avoid the burn out and finishes with a flourish. The Counting Crows are the first group I've seen where people are just as excited to here the ballads as the jams, A Long December being the classic example. My point is, while the band's energy was undoubtedly high, the show was filled with dynamic shifts that kind of served to temper the intensity in the crowd. You'd get a couple of upbeat numbers and then the band would pull the plug and play a slower song the crowd would be just as happy to hear. As a result, a lot of the show left people just kind of standing and watching the group. (Novel idea, I know.) The result of that is a very disinterested looking audience when in fact the opposite was true.

I was disappointed not to get "Cowboys" or "Round Here" but "Another Horsedreamer's Blues" and Rain King" were absolute showstoppers and hearing "Mrs. Potter's Lullaby" and "Ghost Train" back to back was a heck of a consolation. My only lament is that the group waited until the very end of the show to truly blow the roof off the place and give the audience license to groove. With "Rain King" and "Hanginaround" to close out the main set, I made up for about an hour and 15 minutes worth of immobility and likely danced the length of half the lawn, but just like that, they were gone. I guess the goal of every show is to leave the them wanting more, but I feel like the Crows did that to the point of annoyance. Suffice to say they really peaked in the late going.

The true end of the show came with a genuinely classy mention of a local charity fighting to put an end to physical abuse of women and empower victims and then a pretty genuine appeal for those in attendance to vote and take pride in their nation and be the change and whatnot. Those moments always seem to strike funny chords with me. I mean, far be it for me to say that musicians shouldn't hype their causes and what they think is important, but it's hard for musicians and celebrities not to come off a little preachy when they, in their comfortable lifestyle, stand atop a very literal pulpit (or podium, I guess is a better word) and appeal to the masses to change the world. With that said, I think Adam seemed pretty darn sincere and when the concert closed with "This Land Is Your Land" I won't exactly call it moving, but it wasn't as trite as it could have been. I see a lot of similarities in our stage presence and even writing style. He seems to have a good heart and head on his shoulders. A great show from a group I'd jump at the chance to see again.

The visit with Denny was equally memorable and quite a gift to tack on to a great Sunday, but largely untypable, just because on paper all we did was go to BWW (really into acronyms today), where Denny was reminded of the day of the week, and shoot some hoops on both wet and dry areas of a basketball court, but I share a unique friendship with both Denny and Dennis, where we can do next to nothing and still leave with memories that will last a lifetime. Happy to spend that time with them and I look forward to them and other Jersey, PA, and Maryland friends making the journey to NY for a good time. *cough*

Song of the Day: Dear God (Sincerely M.O.F.)-Monsters Of Folk
Jazz Song of the Day: Oop-Bop-Sh'bam-Dizzy Gillespie

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Phourth: An Appeal to the Vanity of Ben Kraus

Rule number one of writing is to know your audience. Well, no, I guess rule number one of writing is to have a point and hope that one hand kind of washes the other (the point leads to the audience... you probably knew what I meant; you're smart people.

Anyway, time for the long awaited Independence Day Phish Concert post. Phish shows are kind of like an entire world in and of itself and it was a real pleasure to take in the experience with Deanna, Sean Taylor, Ben, and Jeremy, who was kind enough to leave his free orchestra level seats to take in the last bit of the concert with us.

I'm nowhere near as qualified to breakdown the music of Phish as I am Dave Matthews Band, but there are certainly some notes I'd love to make. The band was beyond tight. I mean, it's almost like they define what it is to be on the same page musically. To have such a jam/free sound still come off so clean every single time is almost frightening. They crammed 33 tracks into the night and, for my money, didn't miss a beat on one of them.

What I really love about Phish shows is obviously the music, but I can honestly say that something bigger than the tunes goes on at their shows. Don't worry, I'm not talking about some hippie mysticism of a higher power or anything, but simply put, I've never seen a more interactive show with more people uniformly, yet uniquely, invested in what occurred on stage. You can imagine, I'm sure, at a show like that you're going to run into some characters in varying states of sobriety, but in the middle of all this seemingly randomness, there's a literal pulse to the people and vibe there that really makes everybody everything.

I know I've taken that last paragraph could have easily been taken from the greatest passages of Thomas Wolfe, but electric kool-aid aside, I've never witnessed such a positive version of a mob mentality in my life. The closest comparison being Boston Garden during the Lakers/Celtics playoff game when Leon Powe received an ovation I'll never forget.

At this show you have a ocean of tie-dye, Americana, and homemade Phish shirts (including an incredible Harry Hood one made by Deanna), a man holding an American flag with a peace sign embroidered on it, waving it the majority of the show. I'm not even sure he had a seat. You have Sean Taylor and I finally in matching neon green headbands. You have fans of all shapes, colors, and sizes singing along and (to quote Wolfe more directly) "grooving on their thing" chanting at the right parts and the glow sticks, balloons, and beach balls being flung into the air at musical climaxes. I equate the experience to people who go see "Rocky Horror" and chant and shout certain things during the movie or production. It's kind of a way for experienced phans to make the show their own. It's a cult and underground following in its truest form, depending on how deep you are in the pudding. (Should be the last reference, minus a potential nod to day-glo) And all the while, the band just sustains this experience with tunes and lights almost casually, as if they are just a vessel for this ultimate display of humanity.

Proof of this nearly inexplicable synergy came near the end of the show; actually, during the final number before the encore (Slave To The Traffic Light, for anyone curious) when the cloudy (though truly beautiful) night finally gave way and displayed an awe-inspiring yellow moon casting its glow on the venue. When this occurred, the whole crowd literally erupted with joy. The moment seemed so scripted that I actually leaned over to Deanna and asked if I missed something on stage while I was distracted by the moon. When she confirmed that everyone was riffing on the moon, I got some pretty intense chills.

Another cool moment was when strictly by coincidence, the only time I saw fireworks out on the water during the whole show was during a barber shop quartet rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner". I mean, you can't script that kind of stuff.

Don't get me wrong, if had to listen for one band for the rest of my life, it's still Dave. They're my favorite and have molded me into who I am as much as a facet of pop culture can. And, not that anyone asked, but if I had to listen to someone's tunes for 24 hours with no breaks, it'd be Paul Simon, but for my money, for all the GREAT acts out there, if I had to pick one band to see live for the rest of my life, I'd see Phish. I'm honored and humbled to have shared the experience with my friends.

The lone downside of the experience is, once again, I was left hanging in my quest for "Punch You In The Eye" (my favorite song of theirs), but other than that the band was top notch. The set was great and I encourage you to look it up. For me to have three highlights is really the understatement of the year, but...

1. "Avenu Malkanu" sandwiched between renditions of "The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday" was easily one of the most beautiful things I've heard live. I was kind of overwhelmed and it was a really prophound (see what I did there?) moment that was the apex of the night three songs in. Incredible.

2. My first witnessing of a "tucking" during the first cover of "Purple Rain" since '99. We partied like it (Prince nod), and a vacuum solo to boot. For once Youtube is mightier than the metaphorical pen. Dig for yourself.

3. "Harry Hood" took the second set to a whole new space.

But again, the whole show delivered and had me, and consequently everyone, engaged from Tweezer to Tweezer.

Until next time, this is Tom on behalf of Friar Tuck.

Song of the Day: Jailhouse-Sublime (Summer is here and so is summer camp)

Jazz Song of the Day: The Chief-Billy Harper

Saturday, July 7, 2012

You Picked The Wrong Place To Sit

This past week brought about my third visit Gamehendge as Phish visited the sandy shores of Jones Beach and, somewhat surprisingly, left the "Round Room" off the set list. I can't wait to get into the show, but I have a couple notes that I want to bring up before we take that journey.

The one and only Wong and his enigmatic hair returned for a weekend of Long Island leisure. Unfortunately, my work schedule didn't allow me to really spend all that much time with him and as, a result, I'm left with merely whispers of some stories to be added to the annals of Wong lore and a glimpse of some illuminating photos that seem to paint the picture of the occasion quite aptly. As much as it seems I did indeed miss out on the party, that's not to say we didn't have our own fun on the Friday night he came through.

Now, excusing the abrupt shift in the discussion, this Wong visit came with it's own very small, but nonetheless momentous accomplishment. A milestone that I don't want to blow out of perportion, but is worth mentioning. I, Tom Policastro, went to see the film "Ted". Now, some of you are thinking, "big deal, you and millions of other people", but we're talking about a man (at this point), a 23 year old man who is terrified of Chucky, freaked out to no end by Furbies, literally sprinted out of the room at the end of one of the "Santa Clause" sequels when Martin Short brings these giant grinning toy soldiers to life, had to have American Girl dolls removed from the guest room of a friends house before going to sleep and finally, a man who STRUGGLED (but did, for the record) to make it through all of "Toy Story 3". The difference between the third and the first two being that the toys had never been evil before. I mean, Prospector Pete wasn't exactly a moral compass for our nation's youth, but there's a difference between I'm going to chase you down to keep you here and a little toy internment camp with a bruiser baby, and screeching monkey watch...monkey. Seriously, the shit is ominous.

Anyway, with all that said, let's not make all that big of a deal out of it. It was a stoner comedy with all too familiar voice of Peter Griffin, so I knew what I was getting into and wasn't exactly biting my fingernails. I'll admit that I got really tense when I first knew Ted was going to come to life. I was a little concerned that if they made it creepy as an attempt at comedy, the joke would be lost on me and I'd wind up clinging to Becky and Wong (who drew the task of sitting next to me) like saran wrap. I am relieved to say that the scariest part of the movie was a truly disturbing performance from Giovanni Ribisi and I can't recommend that hilarious film enough. Although, I did cast some eyes about when Mark Whalberg and the bear were fighting as if to say "this is my nightmare."

After the film, Matty, Becky, Wong, Roo, and I retired to Matty's to relax a bit. I think stories that start out with "so, we were drinking" are rarely half as interesting to a listening or reading audience as they seem to those who lived it, so I'll be brief, but it's worth mentioning that we played quarters and I had the brilliant idea of initiating the rule that if you got passed by the shot glass three times in a row you had to take a shot of tequila. Wong sat between myself and Matt Matura. Suffice to say Wong picked the wrong chair to settle in.

Now, a quick work story before I let you go. I feel like I leave everyday with a story worth telling for better or worse. Most are more quick oral stories not worth the time it would take to type them, but every now and again you get something blog worthy. I give you the following. I'm at the register going through the tediousness of ringing groceries when I hear a rather shrill "Ah dammit, Jerry you always do that when I'm leaning on the cart." She was referring to herself resting propped up on the shopping cart and "Jerry" subconsciously pulling the cart forward to move up on the line and essentially pulling the rug out from under her and sending her forward, kind of like when you have those dreams when you're falling. There's no real danger of falling, but the sensation is there. I see before me a couple consisting of a rather large man and a rather small woman. Jerry seems unmoved by his wife's lament and in response to his indifference she absolutely rams him with the cart. At this point, my shirt flies up over my mouth to cover my smile as I bite my tongue bloody to keep from laughing. Jerry doesn't flinch at the blow and with my smile veiled, though eyes probably saying it all, I go about ringing them up. One of the first items I ring up for is some meat, which the woman asks whether in came up as $3.99. Jerry is blocking her from seeing the screen for herself and his face is stone as she asks him what the price is repeatedly. It is at this point I realize that Jerry either has the absolute best sense of humor in the world or is completely miserable at home. I finally jump in myself and tell her the price of the meat and she thanks me. That alone would have been enough for me to hang my hat on as the moment of the day, but then, in an unprecedented stroke of fate, he pulls the cart forward again and, again, sends her forward. If looks could kill that whole grocery store would be in the obits section. At that point, I lost it and again pulled up my shirt with chuckles clearly escaping. After the order they both thanked me with smiles and the woman gave a look as if to say "do you see what I have to deal with?" That gave me the sense that the preceding ordeal was kind of the dynamic of their relationship, rather than there being any real trouble in paradise and gave me the real freedom to kick back and laugh at the situation. Jerry's my hero and I'm suddenly looking forward to my next relationship (the poor, poor girl).

Great to see Wong and be in, (albeit in a rather menial position) a workplace where I revel in moments like the preceeding and socialize with a great cast of characters everyday. I've learned that you can't put a price on that. Look for a post tomorrow about the Phish show.

Song of the Day: Bittersweet Motel-Phish
Jazz Song of the Day: Cheek To Cheek-Ella Fitzgerald